The coronavirus lockdown has created a “perfect storm” for many children isolated with their abusers, ex-home secretary Sajid Javid has said.
Writing in the Telegraph, he said this will contribute to a “surge” in cases.
He said he will lead a new “no holds barred” inquiry into child sex abuse in the UK with the Centre for Social Justice think tank.
The inquiry will examine organised child sexual exploitation and the abuse of children online.
It comes after Home Secretary Priti Patel announced last month that the government will publish a paper “later this year” on research into group-based child sexual exploitation, which was commissioned by Mr Javid when he was home secretary in 2018.
Mr Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that something that “weighed the most heavily on him” during his time as home secretary in 2018 and 2019 was child sexual abuse and its “true scale”.
He said he was “particularly concerned” about lockdown because “children are left to isolate alongside their abuser and they will therefore suffer severe long-term damage and this kind of thing isn’t reflected in statistics just yet, but it will be, and I’m very concerned about that”.
The former chancellor said the investigation into will look at organised child sexual exploitation, including gangs and on-street grooming.
The second part of the inquiry will examine how child sexual abuse “happens today”, with a focus on online abuse and live streaming.
Of the gang-based exploitation, Mr Javid said: “We know that of all these high profile cases when there have been convictions, a disproportionate number of people are from Asian heritage, particularly Pakistani heritage, my own heritage and that both saddens and angers me.
“People from my heritage, many of them disproportionately responsible for what we’ve seen and I want to know know why.”
He said in the past there had been an “ignorance” of this in some authorities.
Writing in the Telegraph, Mr Javid said: “The surge in child sexual abuse happening right now won’t be reflected in statistics until later this year.
“As appalling as those numbers will be, however, they’ll still only scrape the surface of what’s been occurring under our noses for decades.”
Andy Cook, chief executive of the Centre for Social Justice think tank, said it was “highly courageous” of Mr Javid to “speak out on the issue, which has been difficult to confront and too often neglected”.
Javed Khan, chief executive of children’s charity Barndardos, said it was an “important warning” from Mr Javid that some children are trapped at home with their abusers.
In 2018, in his role as home secretary, Mr Javid ordered research into the “characteristics and contexts” of gangs abusing children, arguing that ignoring issues such as ethnicity is more likely to fuel the far-right.
He said he wanted officials researching the causes of gang-based exploitation to leave “no stone unturned”.
The review came after grooming gangs were convicted in Huddersfield, Oxford, and Rotherham.
Due to be published later this year, the paper on this review “will outline the insights gained” and will “focus on how agencies can learn lessons from the past to tackle group-based offending and safeguard vulnerable children”.
Nazir Afzal is best known for helping victims of the Rochdale sex abuse ring get justice. When he became a chief crown prosecutor in 2011 he overturned a previous decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not to take the case forward, suggesting that as the perpetrators were Asian, “white professionals’ oversensitivity to political correctness . . . may have contributed to justice being stalled”. Nine men were later convicted of a catalogue of offences including rape, sexual activity with a girl under 16 and trafficking for sexual exploitation.
This fast-paced memoir, cantering through some of the most complex, violent and fascinating cases he oversaw, explores what led him to become a champion of the ignored. Afzal grew up in 1960s Birmingham in a Pakistani Muslim family who often felt that “without any warning, we might be told to leave”. The book opens with a powerful account of a young Afzal being assaulted in a racially motivated attack. Afterwards his father tells him: “The police are not interested in you. Justice doesn’t mean anything to us.” Afzal says he felt determined to ensure that justice really was for everyone.
He was an industrious student. Law school beckoned and by the end of the 1980s he was a defence solicitor. A second epiphany came when he was defending a rapist who he knew was lying. “The sex was consensual,” said the man. Afzal resigned that same day. Eventually he realised his calling lay with the CPS, even though the work was “relentless”. What Afzal, who left the CPS in 2015, confronted repeatedly is an anachronistic legal system, with archaic laws and courts that force victims to stand outside with the suspects’ families.
The main thrust of his career focused on what he terms “gender terrorism”: violence against women and girls, including so-called honour killings and forced marriages. He scrutinised in particular the way victims of honour killings were often treated as partly responsible for their own murders. One such case was that of Heshu Yones, a 16-year-old girl from west London whose father slit her throat after she started dating a boy. In court she was portrayed as “wayward” and when the judge sentenced the father, he said that he understood what it must be like to have a daughter who was out of control. The killer received a reduced tariff as a result. Afzal realised there were systemic problems with the way honour killings were handled by the police, by social workers, by the legal system — and started trying to educate them.
A similar victim-blaming attitude was present in Rochdale, where the girls were initially dismissed as not being credible. What had occurred was an epidemic of grooming and abuse; teenagers plied with alcohol and coerced into unprotected intercourse with multiple, much older men. In one case a man poured petrol over a 14-year-old with learning difficulties and threatened to set her alight unless she carried out a sex act on him. It was a world before #MeToo and these girls were brave silence-breakers.
Now Afzal sees the grooming trial as “one of the most important cases in the history of modern British justice”. The repercussions were huge; police officers were investigated and social workers struck off. I wish Afzal had gone into more detail on the case, though — it feels worthy of its own book.
A senior police officer admitted that his force ignored the sexual abuse of girls by Pakistani grooming gangs for decades because it was afraid of increasing “racial tensions”, a watchdog has ruled.
After a five-year investigation, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) upheld a complaint that the Rotherham officer told a missing child’s distraught father that the town “would erupt” if it was known that Asian men were routinely having sex with under-age white girls.
The chief inspector is said to have described the abuse as “P*** shagging” and to have said it had been “going on” for 30 years: “With it being Asians, we can’t afford for this to be coming out.”
His incendiary language features in a confidential report by the watchdog that upholds six complaints against South Yorkshire police by a former child victim of sexual exploitation.
Its 13-page document, seen by The Times, was issued two days after a critical review of multiple police failings during a botched inquiry into the organised sexual abuse of vulnerable young girls by men of Pakistani heritage in Manchester.
The Rotherham complainant was repeatedly abused over several years from 2003. The IOPC said it was “very clear that you were sexually exploited by Asian men” and upheld a complaint that police “took insufficient action to prevent you from harm”.
Until now police forces across the north and the Midlands have consistently denied that concerns about upsetting community sensitivities or accusations of racism were a factor in their past failure to tackle grooming gangs.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, said last night that the Rotherham and Manchester scandals represented “a failure of the state to fulfil one of its fundamental roles, protecting our children”. “Institutionalised, corrosive behaviour that disregards victims has to end,” she said. “Tackling this abuse is a priority for the Home Office, which is why I have accelerated the delivery of the Tackling Child Sex Abuse strategy that will put victims first. There will be no no-go areas.”
An investigation by The Times into child grooming in towns across the north prompted an independent inquiry. Its 2014 report found that between 1997 and 2013 more than 1,400 Rotherham children were exposed to severe levels of sexual abuse and violence by groups of men who were “almost all” of Pakistani heritage. To date, 36 men have been convicted for crimes related to the scandal.
The watchdog has informed the young woman that its report has been shared with the South Yorkshire force, which “agreed with our findings”. She was told that the IOPC was unable to identify the chief inspector.
It interviewed 16 police officers known to have had dealings with the girl during her years of exploitation but the report said that “none of them could recall their involvement with you”. Operation Linden, its inquiry into complaints of alleged wrongdoing by South Yorkshire officers in connection to such crimes, was launched in late 2014.
Its scrutiny of the young woman’s allegations formed one strand of a larger operation that has featured 91 investigations. It has not been revealed whether misconduct charges have been brought. At the time, her parents’ fear that she was being abused by adults was magnified by a growing frustration that police did not take their concerns seriously and viewed the vulnerable girl as a “naughty kid, a teenager playing up”.
Her father told The Times that this impression was confirmed by his conversation with the senior officer. “She’d been missing for weeks and he was talking as though she was an adult doing it of her own free will. He said it had been going on for 30 years and that in his day they used to call them ‘P*** shaggers’. I told him she was a child and this was child abuse.”
The complainant and her family said they were pleased by the watchdog’s findings but did not believe that any officer would be held to account.
Its final report is yet to be published.
Steve Noonan, the IOPC’s director of major investigations, said that its Rotherham investigation was “continuing to make significant progress”.
“We have completed more than 90 per cent of the inquiries. Our priority has been, and always will be, the welfare of the many survivors of child abuse we have been engaging with,” he said. “As their individual cases conclude, we provide them with a personal update on our findings.”
South Yorkshire police said it recognised the failings of its past and accepted the watchdog’s findings. The chief inspector’s reported comments were “not something we tolerate in today’s force” and it was “unfortunate that no individual officer has been identified”.
“Since 2014 we have developed a far deeper understanding of child sexual exploitation,” it added.
Senior police officers should be prosecuted for mishandling a Greater Manchester sexual abuse scandal that resulted in most offenders getting away with their crimes, a whistleblower has said.
Margaret Oliver, a former detective constable who led Greater Manchester police’s investigation into child sexual exploitation, said the force had spent years trying to cover up its failures.
An independent report published on Tuesday found that up to 52 children may have been victims of the sexual abuse ring, but Operation Augusta had been shut down prematurely partly because senior officers had prioritised solving burglaries and car crime.
Some of the officers involved when the investigation was launched in 2004 are still serving, and the findings have now been passed on to the Independent Office for Police Conduct to decide if there was any wrongdoing.
“I can’t be more critical of what they did. Accountability is the answer, consequences for those failures, changes in the law to ensure that they can be charged with gross misconduct,” said Oliver.
“Based on [GMP’s] track record I don’t have any faith that they will do anything unless they are forced kicking and screaming to do it.”
Oliver resigned from the force after 15 years in October 2012. She had also worked on Operation Span, an investigation into reports of grooming in Rochdale. She later went public with claims that allegations of rape and sexual abuse were not being recorded by police.
Although she said she felt vindicated by the publication of the report, because it “officially acknowledged” the validity of her concerns, she added that ultimately greater action was needed to right the wrongs of the past.
“It’s very easy to talk the talk, what we need is action and not just from GMP, this is a national issue,” said Oliver. “This needs to come from the top of government, they need to be forced to address it properly.”
“Multiple rapes of vulnerable young children – 11- and 12-year-olds – deserve action and those who should take that action are senior police officers.”
The original investigation was launched following the death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia, who died from an overdose in 2003 after being injected with heroin by a 50-year-old man.
In an emotional statement on Tuesday, Victoria’s grandmother, Joan Agoglia, said the publication of the report was “wonderful, as I’ve been fighting for this all my life it seems” but emphasised the extent to which authorities had not taken concerns raised about the girl’s wellbeing seriously.
“Vicky told me about what this man had done to her. She was so bruised underneath her private parts, you couldn’t believe it. She told me that she had been beaten,” said Agoglia.
Although the operation was shut down in July 2005 because of a lack of resources, Oliver claimed the force viewed the girls as an “underclass”, adding that “these weren’t the chief constable’s daughters”.
The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, who commissioned the review, said he had raised the findings of an inquest into Victoria’s death with the attorney general because he felt “uncomfortable” that they did not raise failures of authorities to safeguard her.
Assistant chief constable Mabs Hussain, the head of specialist crime for GMP, said: “We have made a voluntary referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct so that they can carry out an independent assessment to determine if there are any conduct matters that should be investigated.”
“Of course back in early 2000s, the priorities for forces across the UK were very different. This has completely changed and today safeguarding the vulnerable is our absolute priority.”
A friend told me his student daughter had become a feminist activist. Check out her Facebook page, he said. So I did, expecting posts on the gender pay gap or #MeToo. Instead I discovered the campaign to which she and her mates devoted their energy was to save the Sheffield branch of Spearmint Rhino.
Seriously? A lap-dancing club? Indeed, a multinational lap-dancing corporation, where men from London to Las Vegas can pay near-naked women to grind on their crotches in private booths. Spearmint Rhino, whose posters of strippers dressed in sexy uniforms for “naughty schoolgirl” parties were banned by the advertising watchdog, and which exists to flatter and feed the sexual entitlement of men, according to its founder John Gray.
Not just any old Spearmint Rhino either but Sheffield’s, where the council recorded 74 breaches of the licence and 145 of the club’s own code of conduct, including sexual touching and masturbation. Yet outside the club with placards, demanding the council ignore such violations, were women students.
Until recently feminists campaigned to close such clubs, which proliferated under New Labour’s shameful loosening of licensing laws. Residents fought to stop them being sited near homes or schools, where passing girls would be cat-called. Women in business battled male bosses who entertained clients in strip joints, meaning female executives must either endure the bump ’n’ grind or lose networking opportunities. Women’s equality was judged incompatible with male sexual services on every high street.
Yet the Spearmint Rhino feminists told Sheffield council that “stripping is a crucial drive in the feminist movement” and “plays a huge role in empowering women”. Those who wanted the club closed, including the local Women’s Equality Party, were “SWERFs”: Sex Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, ie prudes and bigots. Among the club’s most vocal supporters was Sophie Wilson, 23, a Sheffield councillor and now the prospective Labour candidate for Rother Valley.
Given this constituency includes part of Rotherham, you’d expect Ms Wilson to be mindful of the town’s recent sexual abuse scandal, aware that 20 men were jailed for grooming, rape and trafficking, that her voters include some of the 1,500 female victims. These grotesque crimes, the ensuing cover-up and recriminations, have left a festering wound. No surprise that residents voted for a zero-tolerance policy on sexual entertainment venues: from next year Rotherham council won’t renew any strip club licences.
Yet instead of reaching out to victim groups, Ms Wilson has gone to war against one of Rotherham’s bravest survivors. Sammy Woodhouse described being raped and impregnated as a 14-year-old by Arshid Hussain, now jailed, in her memoir Just A Child. With low self-esteem, few qualifications and criminal convictions (after Hussain inveigled her into robbery and drug dealing) she could only find work as a stripper in clubs.
For nine years she endured sexual assaults, the constant badgering by clients for “extras”, saw foreign women trafficked by pimps who demand girls illicitly offer sex. Many lap dancers she met shared her troubled trajectory: child abuse, manipulative boyfriend, a subsequent sense of worthlessness. The parallels with the Rotherham victims are obvious. As the National Crime Agency wrote: “The girls, who were all vulnerable and craving attention and love, were deliberately targeted for the sole purpose of becoming sexual objects for the men.” Perfect strip-club fresh meat.
Sammy Woodhouse is aghast that middle-class students believe lap-dancing clubs are empowering. Or that Sophie Wilson responded to Spearmint Rhino’s offer of a free night out as reward for saving their licence with an excited: “I’m up for it.” In response, Ms Wilson called Woodhouse — a Rother Valley voter — “SWERF trash”. It is hard to believe such an immature, insensitive person could be selected for a seat beset with complex problems. But the Rother Valley long-list compiled by Labour’s NEC excluded most local candidates. Ms Wilson was a Momentum choice.
She will need all the goodwill she can get. The seat has never returned a Tory but Labour’s majority has fallen steadily to 3,882 at the last election. Despite this, Sophie Wilson’s only impact so far is to trample on the town’s sensitive past.
Who will go out leafleting for her on dark nights now? And if she wins, will she prove to be another hastily chosen, social media big mouth with little real-life experience, like the disgraced Sheffield Hallam MP Jared O’Mara?
Yet sadder than this betrayal of South Yorkshire voters by the party they have always trusted with power is the mindset of Spearmint Rhino feminists. Has the first generation raised on internet porn come to believe that sexual objectification is normal, even desirable? They call themselves “sex positive”, implying that women who oppose lap-dancing clubs ain’t getting any. (As if the sex trade has any respect for female pleasure.) They say lap dancers just need unionisation and for men to tip them well.
This, remember, is the #MeToo generation that calls a hand on a knee sexual assault and railed against entitled businessmen ogling hostesses at the Presidents Club charity ball last year. Yet it does not see that the narrative that gave Harvey Weinstein impunity to grab any passing starlet is played out in every £30 private dance. Wrapped up in their own narcissism and “identity” they are blind to the bigger picture. They are Spearmint Rhino’s useful feminist idiots. Ladies, you’ve been had.
The first time Amere Singh Dhaliwal raped “Girl A”, she was 13 or 14 years old. Along with two other British Asian men, he approached her and her friends at a bus station in Huddersfield and offered them alcohol.
Girl A cannot remember which of the men she lost her virginity to, weeks later, but she does remember that when Dhaliwal raped her, he told his girlfriend and others that she had been the sexual aggressor. His girlfriend and her friends then beat up Girl A, breaking her nose. He passed her round his friends, who would take girls up to the moors and threaten to leave them there.
Girl A had an abortion, and after getting pregnant again, the gang dropped her. She suspects that, at 17, she was too old for them.
You cannot begin to understand a crime until you hear the fine details of it. The grit and the texture; its particular signature. There are many features of the Huddersfield grooming trial – which ended on 19 October with the convictions of 20 men for attacks on 15 girls – that demand careful consideration. The way that many of the men worked in the informal, night-time economy, at a taxi firm. The way they used Asian girls to approach the houses of the white girls, asking them to come out for the evening. The way that violence was meted out early on (as it was to Girl A) so that the threat always hung over the victims – a classic form of abusive control.
The reason I know the details above is because of the reporting of Stephanie Finnegan, who covers Leeds Crown Court for the Huddersfield Examiner. She was there when the gang were jailed for 221 years. “The ringleader has been jailed for LIFE with a minimum of 18 years,” she tweeted. “Or as I like to think of it, at least an entire childhood.”
I want to give credit to Finnegan because court reporting in Britain has been hollowed out. Forty local papers shut in 2017 alone, according to Press Gazette. The legal system itself is creaking, thanks to years of cuts – spending on legal aid has shrunk by £1bn in five years. Even in high-profile cases there has been no legal aid. The parents of Charlie Gard, a child whose doctors recommended the withdrawal of medical treatment against the family’s wishes, did not receive it. Together, our courts and our press should make sure that justice is not only done, but seen to be done. Yet the economic conditions in which both are operating make that harder.
The vacuum is being filled by agitators such as Tommy Robinson. His arrest for filming on the steps of the court – and encouraging his Facebook followers to share the video – is a reflection of a system where justice is not being seen to be done. Yes, he exploited the echo-chamber of the American alt-right, failing to mention that Britain has strong laws on court reporting. But Robinson was aided in building his narrative by the lack of everyday reports on such grooming cases. There is little attention paid to child sex abuse unless it is “newsworthy”. (That’s code for “unless the perpetrators are Asian or Muslim”, in case you’re wondering.) “A few weeks after the Rochdale case, we dealt with a case of ten white men in North Yorkshire who had been abusing young girls, and they were all convicted and they got long sentences,” Nazir Afzal, the prosecutor of the Rochdale gang, said in 2014. “It didn’t get the level of coverage.”
That is what the case of Charlie Gard has in common with the Huddersfield grooming trial. In both, a kernel of truth was nurtured by online conspiracy theorists, with poisonous results. Charlie’s parents felt that they were denied access to justice by the British courts – and their grievance was jumped on by the American pro-life movement, which was intent on proving that socialised healthcare, also known as the NHS, inevitably leads to “death sentences”.
In the Huddersfield case, yes, there is a racial element. It does matter that the defendants were British Asians, because they all were. All 20 men also knew each other, had access to cars and cash through the night-time economy, and they shared an ideology that allowed them to treat other people – women – as things.
Ah, comes the snap answer. You mean Islam? Too glib. The ringleader, Amere Singh Dhaliwa was a Sikh and the other perpetrators were hardly model Muslims: remember, their first offer was to get the girls to come drinking with them. They were, however, guilty of racially charged misogyny – a shared excuse that white girls were “slags”. (That said, it’s worth noting that one of the Huddersfield victims, as with other gangs, was Asian.)
Successive trials have shown us that child sex abuse exists among every community and ethnicity in Britain. The TV presenter Rolf Harris. The football coach Barry Bennell. The publicist Max Clifford. Father Paul Moore, a Catholic priest from Ayrshire jailed earlier this year.
Think of it like a virus that causes different symptoms in different patients, as each type of perpetrator finds their own rationale for their actions – and the same structures of power and prejudice prevent their victims being believed. In Bristol, British-Somali men told girls it was their “culture and tradition” to share sexual partners. In Oxford, eight men, mostly of Pakistani descent, alternately plied girls with drink and drugs, then threatened them with violence. In Newcastle, a report found, police considered “deterrent punishments” – for the victims, to try to stop them going back to their abusers. In Peterborough, where the ringleader was of Roma descent, a teenage victim was targeted because she had learning disabilities.
Nothing will get Girl A her childhood back. But we can make sure that the likes of Tommy Robinson don’t get to define the debate on child sex abuse. That’s why justice has to be done, and seen to be done.
Three members of a Rochdale grooming gang face possible deportation to Pakistan after court of appeal judges upheld a decision to strip them of their British citizenship.
Abdul Aziz, Adil Khan and Qari Abdul Rauf were among nine men jailed in May 2012 for their part in a grooming ring which plied vulnerable girls with drink and drugs so they could “pass them around” for sex.
The court heard that some of the victims, who were aged in their early teens, were raped and physically assaulted and some were forced to have sex with “several men in a day, several times a week”.
Following their conviction, Aziz, Khan and Rauf were informed by the Home Office in 2015 that they would be stripped of their British citizenship, after which the home secretary would consider deporting them to Pakistan.
They were told: “British citizenship is a privilege that confers particular entitlements and benefits, including the right to a British passport and the right to vote in general elections.
“It is not in the public interest that individuals who engage in serious and/or organised crime, which constitutes a flagrant abuse of British values, enjoy those entitlements and benefits.”
The men challenged the decision at the first tier tribunal (FTT), arguing that removing their citizenship would breach their right to a family life under the European convention on human rights, as they have children living in the UK.
The FTT ruled against the men, concluding that “depriving the appellant of his British citizenship would not in itself prevent him continuing his relationship with his family”.
The upper tribunal also rejected the men’s appeal, arguing that the serious nature of their crimes meant it was reasonable for the home secretary to view the removal of their citizenship as “conducive to the public good”.
The men then took their case to the court of appeal and represented themselves before three senior judges at a hearing in July. Adil Khan argued that he was innocent of any crime, something the judges dismissed.
In a ruling on Wednesday, Lord Justice Sales said: “Given the extremely serious nature of the offending by each appellant, there is no good ground for calling that conclusion into question. There was no error of law by the FTT.”
All three men, from Rochdale, were found guilty of conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with children under the age of 16 and trafficking for sexual exploitation following a trial at Liverpool crown court.
Aziz, who was one of the ringleaders of the grooming gang and referred to by some of the others as The Master, was jailed for nine years.
Married father of five Rauf was jailed for six years and Khan for eight years.
Outlining their offending, Sales said: “The sentencing judge described how in some cases the girls were raped callously, viciously and violently; and in some cases they were driven round Rochdale and Oldham to be made to have sex with paying customers.
“All the men treated the girls as though they were worthless and beyond all respect. They were motivated by lust and greed.”
Under the British Nationality Act 1981, the home secretary has the power to strip an individual of their British citizenship – as long as it would not leave them stateless – if it is seen as “conducive to the public good” or they obtained their British citizenship fraudulently.
Depriving a person of citizenship for the public good can be done on the grounds of “involvement in terrorism, espionage, serious organised crime, war crimes or unacceptable behaviours”.
Grooming gangs who preyed on 700 women and girls in north-east England acted with “arrogant persistence” after police were seen to be punishing victims for their situation, a serious case review has found.
The report from the retired barrister David Spicer into the response by authorities in Newcastle to child sexual exploitation concluded that victims received effective protection after the launch of a Northumbria police investigation in January 2014. Before that, however, the force’s actions lacked consistency and had little impact, it said.
Seventeen men and one woman were jailed last year for being part of a network that plied 22 women and girls aged 13-25 with drink and drugs before sexually assaulting them between 2011 and 2014.
The trials were the result of the Northumbria police investigation Operation Shelter, part of the larger Operation Sanctuary, the force’s investigation into the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and adults. The report said Sanctuary had identified 700 victims in the force’s area. Perpetrators have received a total of 429 years and three months in prison as part of the operation.
Addressing the response from authorities before 2014, the report said perpetrators were not consistently investigated or interviewed. “Historical information was not routinely accessed and incidents were treated as separate occurrences with no strategy to pull information together to improve understanding of the whole picture,” it said.
“While perpetrators were not punished or disrupted, attempts to persuade victims to change behaviours and not return to the abusers led to consideration of deterrent punishments of victims for being drunk and disorderly or for making false allegations when accounts were changed. Some victims were placed in secure accommodation.
“This sent an unhelpful message to perpetrators. They were unlikely to be prosecuted or prevented from continuing to abuse, encouraging an arrogant persistence. It also had a significant impact on victims who learnt that nothing would be done against perpetrators.”
The report highlighted a stark contrast between the approach taken before and after early 2014, when a Northumbria police investigation was first launched, but it stressed that many of the reasons identified for lack of action in reviews in other cities – including ignoring whistleblowers, members of the public or families, lack of compassion or empathy, misplaced concerns about political correctness and fears of allegations of racism – did not occur in Newcastle.
It did, however, add: “Practitioners did feel that early responses had the appearance of blaming the victims for their behaviour and allocating them responsibility for making bad choices.”
The report detailed victims’ accounts of sexual abuse after being drugged. “I never had sex when I was sober,” one victim told Spicer. “I wanted to leave. I was given drink. I kept saying no and fighting them off. I was very tired and fell asleep. When I woke, I had been raped.”
“I didn’t think what was happening was wrong,” said another. “I thought they were my friends. They bought me drink and drugs. I thought it was OK because of my family. Then it became more sinister. Different. There were parties with men a lot older: 30-40, when previously 20-21.”
“You often get them late afternoon on a Friday. If somebody doesn’t want to go home, that’s when you get these conversations,” says Alison Hamnett, director of operations across the north for Brook. They may start with asking for free condoms, but eventually the real story emerges: sexual exploitation, abusive relationships, precarious lives. Girls who don’t even feel entitled to refuse sex, let alone insist on protecting themselves.
Some are guarded. “Particularly if they are being groomed, they will have the answers to the questions down pat,” says Hamnett. “But the receptionist will say she saw a car outside drop them off – and the same car is coming with lots of young girls …” Posters hanging in the waiting room of the Manchester clinic where we meet explain the difference between exploitative and loving relationships: no, it’s not OK if he offers a roof over your head and expects sex in return.
The Burnley, Blackburn and Oldham clinics tend to see more grooming-gang victims, says Hamnett. In Liverpool, she found them dealing with a young homeless man, released from prison, who had been having sex in broad daylight in a car park while intoxicated. Manchester saw a young Muslim girl who was being radicalised. The checklist used with clients ranges from female genital mutilation to mental health issues. “We had a young woman of about 17, very intelligent, got all her A-levels and went to university,” says Hamnett. “She was bipolar and, when she was on her meds, she was great. When she wasn’t, she’d sell herself for sex.” The clinic helped her until she was too old to use its service, which is restricted to under-19s. They don’t know where she is now.
Brook’s expertise is in this area – where sexuality, deep-seated social problems and mental health issues collide – and is, says Hallgarten, what makes them “very good value for money”, as identifying the root cause of sexual risk-taking offers more chance of changing it.
But specialist clinics for vulnerable young people such as these are increasingly merging with more general services to save money. There is a push, says Hamnett, towards using GPs instead for contraception. That may work for young people with happy sex lives, but there is a reason appointments here last for up to 40 minutes, not the 10 minutes a busy GP might offer. “I feel as if we’re almost waiting a few years down the line for teenage pregnancies to go up,” she says ruefully. It is this sense of a clock being turned back that worries many.